Nonprofit Journalism Comes to Virginia

Richmond Mercury start-up team. Robert Zullo at right. (Photo credit: Richmond BizSense)

As Virginia print journalism continues to decline, a new business model has emerged — an Internet-based model supported by non-profit foundations.

The Virginia Mercury, an online publication, will report state government and policy news coming out of the General Assembly on topics such as healthcare, campaign finance and criminal justice. Funding will come from Washington, D.C.-based nonprofits Hopewell Fund and New Venture Fund as part of an initiative called The Newsroom.

The editor will be Robert Zullo, a veteran reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch whose most recent beat had him covering Dominion Energy and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. He will be joined by reporters from the Times-Dispatch and the Virginian-Pilot.

Who are these organizations, what do they expect of the online publications they are engendering, and what can we expect of The Virginia Mercury?

Here’s how the New Venture Fund describes itself: “We execute a range of donor-driven public interest projects in conservation, global health, public policy, international development, education, disaster recovery, and the arts.” While some of its initiatives appear to be non-political, many reflect liberal-progressive priorities.

The Hopewell Fund makes no bones about its progressive orientation. It “specializes in helping donors, social entrepreneurs, and other changemakers quickly launch new, innovative social change projects. Hopewell’s staff … has experience across sectors such as domestic and global health, public policy, education, civic engagement, and civil rights.”

So, how will progressive values at the foundation level be reflected in the local coverage of news? NC Policy Watch, a project of the NC Justice Center, is an avowedly progressive publication. Its blog is entitled, “The Progressive Pulse.” Progressive viewpoints color the commentary, as is evident from such headlines as “New voter suppression proposals echo North Carolina’s dark past,” and “GOP leaders seek to poison school safety bill with partisan attack on the Affordable Care Act.”

The Colorado Independent appears to be, as its name implies, less ideologically driven. Its mission states, “We strive to report the news with context, social conscience, and soul.” Its staff cover the beats of civil rights, environment/energy, criminal justice, education, health and politics. My sense from a cursory inspection of the website is that the Independent approaches issues from a center-left perspective but is not blatantly partisan.

Maryland Matters strikes me, also on the basis of cursory inspection, as an insider’s take at Maryland politics written for insiders. The website bills itself as “independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit.”

What model of journalism does Zullo espouse?

Writes  Richmond BizSense:

Zullo said the site will focus on enhancing coverage of Virginia government and policy issues that its backers believe are getting overlooked or lost in the shuffle. He said the site would have elements of news site Vox in its coverage of topics such as immigration, poverty and energy and environment.

Says Style Weekly:

Broadly, coverage will include energy and the environment, transportation, health care, criminal justice, and eventually education. “FOIA and elections are what we want to cover right out of the gate,” Zullo says. “As the capitol press corps has shrunk, a lot of meatier issues tend to get left by the wayside. I think there are a lot of issues with Virginia’s FOIA laws. Lots of exemptions, lots of loopholes.”

Zullo covered Dominion Energy and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from what I would describe as a center-left perspective. His reporting was comprehensive and (as far as I could tell) accurate. He tackled complex topics. He would make sure that all relevant points of view were reflected. However, he framed his articles — on topics ranging from coal ash disposal to erosion-and-sediment control by interstate gas pipelines — so that Dominion and the ACP were always on the defensive. From my vantage point, they were almost always legitimate stories. Zullo didn’t do fake news. As a journalist, I considered him a worthy competitor. But I think this is fair to say: His coverage consistently highlighted the arguments of Dominion’s environmentalist antagonists.

There’s nothing wrong with that — as long as there’s someone else looking to flesh out other sides of the controversies. When Dominion sponsored Bacon’s Rebellion, my coverage of energy and environmental issues reflected my conservative-libertarian point of view. I pursued angles on stories — particularly those relating to the reliability of the electric grid — that were consistent with my priorities of sound economic policy. The public interest is served when multiple viewpoints are aired.

As long as the Richmond Mercury practices responsible journalism, I have no concerns about the publication, even if it is backed by foundations dedicated to progressive political goals. My greatest fear is a government free from accountability, and I have every confidence that Zullo and his team will help keep the politicians in Richmond honest.

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9 responses to “Nonprofit Journalism Comes to Virginia”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    If Robert Zullo was “center left” in his approach to Dominion, I guess I am a raging Bolshevik. The General Assembly divide over the company’s self-serving legislation has never broken down on party or ideology, but it would love to have people think it did – and I’m sorry you share that view, Jim. They work hard to convince people that the SCC is a dangerous dinosaur of a failed progressive past, whereas I see it as a necessary check on unregulated monopolistic greed and power.

    But that’s not the point today, and I wish these people well and look forward to seeing the product. What worries me, as I’ve said, is that the great masses really don’t care to read in-depth reporting and will remain satisfied with the snippets on social media, if they get any “news” at all. I’m sorry newspapers are dying, but it is happening despite their own heavy effort to reach out through social media. In their case the word dinosaur does apply.

    1. Steve, you consistently championed the cause of rate payers, both consumers and industrial. There’s nothing center-left — or Bolshevik — about that. Zullo was far more sympathetic to the environmentalists than you were.

    2. Re: “They work hard to convince people that the SCC is a dangerous dinosaur of a failed progressive past, whereas I see it as a necessary check on unregulated monopolistic greed and power.” You and me both.

      Re: “the great masses really don’t care to read in-depth reporting,” that is the heart of the problem, I fear, because people who DO read in-depth are both curious and well informed, and therefore by definition competent to vote; and those who don’t — well, they vote for the shallowest of reasons for embarrassing, incompetent candidates — and they are too often the majority. What is wrong? I have a flood of fatalistic thoughts: Is our secondary educational system failing to teach our children how to question the world around them? Have we somehow disparaged intelligent debate to the point that it’s culturally impolite for most people to discuss and disagree yet remain friends? Does the flood of stimuli today mean that none can get the attention it deserves? Does democracy demand that we reject “accept it because God ordained it” as an answer?

      Indeed we are dinosaurs. Whatever his ideology, I hope Mr. Zullo has discovered a journalistic model that helps us all fight willful ignorance. Perhaps, like birds, we will survive the great extinction of the MSM.

  2. Wish I could contribute some local stuff. Chesapeake has nothing, VB has a great one.

  3. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

    Zullo’s ACP reporting was left of center because he included the position of opponents? That’s crazy! Too much of the reporting has been primarily focused on sharing Dominion’s position while ignoring the impact on others. Media should be neither left nor right. It should report both sides. I believe that’s what Zullo did.

    That is far better than the work of the reporter who covered the Dominion shareholder meeting. He only talked with Dominion and gave his report a twist that made his story inaccurate. The typical reader would have understood from his report that I called Tom Farrell a liar while standing at the podium. Farrell shared inaccurate information about our interactions after I sat down but I did not respond and I was not one of the people who shouted “Liar.” I wasn’t even sitting anywhere near those who did; could not see them from my seat. They knew the truth and responded without any preplanning or prompting. The reporter did not faithfully report what occurred and also failed to verify the information the company provided. I emailed the reporter and the paper, but neither responded and no correction or apology was made.

    The Richmond Times Dispatch has not printed anything I’ve sent them on any topic, whether letter to the editor or op ed, for several years. Others opposed to the pipelines have had the same treatment. In fact, it even turned down the small 9 word advertisement that attempted to share a website address providing balance to the story. The submitter was told it was too political, yet the paper has accepted multiple full page ads that contained strongly contested information. There has been no balance in what has been shared since this process started and most folks are totally unaware of our perspective or the facts of what is occurring. Yet you call out balanced reporting.

    Dominion doesn’t need to fund you as its surrogate. The traditional media already fills that role.

    This is another demonstration of how severely the deck is stacked against the little guy. It is the proper role of media to provide both sides of the story without bias. Doing so does not make a reporter’s work “left of center.” Opinion pages are designed for positions to be taken without the requirement of balance. Many ignore these basic rules today. One sided reporting that fails to fairly represent opposition is part of what has gotten us into this horrible environment.

    1. Zullo’s ACP reporting was left of center because he included the position of opponents?

      No, no, no. Zullo did a good job of checking in with all relevant parties and making sure their points of view were reflected in his stories. He is a solid journalist. What makes him left of center is the way he framed his articles. The template was this: “Environmentalists charged that Dominion is raping the environment. Dominion says it isn’t.” He’d quote the environmentalists saying why they thought Dom was raping the environment, then he’d quote Dom as defending itself. After enough allegations, readers are going to conclude eventually that raping the environment no matter what Dom says.

      1. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

        So while you’ll label a reporter because you perceive he lays things out in a way that isn’t complimentary of a company leftist, would you label one who ensures that they only print what the company wants rightist? It appears that the later is what is considered normal and it’s not. It’s not balanced. I find it frustrating that it is so hard to get out the message the company disagrees with, that it’s almost laughable to me that anyone would think that a single reporter starting with a perspective that wasn’t the company’s might make readers conclude Dominion rapes the environment. Dominion has so many resources, prints so many ads patting itself on the back, advertising events, etc. that I cannot imagine that a single writer would lead readers to such a conclusion.

        Here’s the link to the website for which the RTD refused to print a small ad because it’s “political.” If something this basic and simple is political, I wonder how they print political ads at all!

        Dominion is not at any disadvantage anywhere in Virginia. It’s the rest of us who are bulldozed over and whose rights and perspectives are ignored.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Perhaps I know absolutely nothing about myself.

      Perhaps my sense of my loves, and my motivations, and my values, what I wake up thinking and caring about, what I work on, and do, and write about in daylight, and what I dream at night – perhaps all this stuff of my life is pure illusion, simple nonsense that I have not a clue about – who I am, what I do, and where I’m going. Perhaps I am ignorant about myself and my world.

      All that being said:

      I think I have spent a lot of time out in the natural world – out on the plains, on the tundra, on the prairies, and scrub lands, watching great sky clouds rise and bloom and overrun, and lightening shatter earth flat to the horizon.

      I think I have hid in a lonely and tormented copse of tiny woods isolated and forlorn on a broad and rough and ravaged land, whipped and cut by howling winds piling up incoming mountains of snow drifts beneath me lost and burrowed and hiding beneath those drifts while clinging to a shaking blue companion losing consciousness, his eyes dull rolling back up into his head.

      And I think I have spend a lot of time gently afloat in the cold pools of gurgling mountain brooks in hot alpine sun, and amid shimmering tidal waters and marshes, and the cuts and estuaries of bay and barrier islands.

      And I think I have felt the endless walking through endless time, hiking an endless beach headed toward endless surf rolling into and out from the endless beaches that unfold before me smooth as glass sands far as my eyes’ vision can see through the swirls of heat and distant spirals of sea birds.

      And I think I have traveled far and high climbing great walls of hot granite endless as the swells of the seas I have traveled too, climbing sheer stone to the tune of swallows darting all about between a red shimmering sun afire rising over Half Dome on one edge of my world and the moon sinking along the other edge etched by El Capitan’s Nose, dreaming yet of Toulumne Meadows, where I will rest if I do not die by thirst and exhaustion before I arrive at those meadows of magical lights playing amid sparkling granite domes, cool willow woods, and gentle fairies.

      And I think I have thought that Dominion Power does not rape my environment with intention, but has added to my world in its way far more that it has subtracted from my world, an important net gain far beyond the great majority of its critics, no matter who they may be, the real world being a tough and ruthless place absent those who live well and effectively in it.

      But then again, all this and me myself may be nothing more that a dream.

    3. Vaconsumeradvocate, you’re acting as if the Times-Dispatch is a unified entity. It’s not. True, the Editorial department has been VERY pro-Dominion. I can’t speak to the advertising department, but accepting your account, then it sounds like advertising was pro-Dominion as well. The news department where Zullo worked was insulated from Editorial and Advertising, and it was not pro-Dominion. Within the news staff, I would wager, there are a diversity of views towards Dominion, but reporters and editors alike would make an effort to be objective. While Zullo was very good about reporting a variety of viewpoints, he framed his articles in a way that usually put Dominion on the defensive.

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